Jelks 1Race is a fiction! Racial categorizations were reified by the United States census, which was mandated by United States Constitution and the Congress in 1790. Now that date should sound alarm bells or cause one to pause with some kind of vague historical recollection. In 1790, the transatlantic slave trade was still in operation when the first census was taken in the United States. Linguistically plural and diverse people from African nations and tribes were still being kidnapped, branded, sold, and traded on the open market from Bogota, Columbia, Newport, Rhode Island, Kingston, Jamaica, New Orleans, Louisiana, Caracas, Venezuela, Bahia, Brazil, to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In the United States these varying people from West and West Central Africa, no matter their languages or their cultural specificity or their religious beliefs were racially categorized to make it easier and more efficient to control through the laws and economics governing slavery. So before the first census was taken racial categorization existed. When the first census was taken culturally and politically racism, the practice of excluding people based on the arbitrariness of physical features, was a daily dietary staple of American life. The census categories simply reinforced what already existed before the United States was imagined.

Quickly within two generations the descendants of these original enslaved immigrants used the moniker African as a political and cultural response to the white supremacy. In their effort to resist endemic racism of American society early black leaders recognized their “African-ness” both as cultural affirmation and a unified political identity to resist slavery and racism that constricted their lives. The earliest black Protestant congregations referred to themselves as African as in the case of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Although most of these persons were American born and bred they still referred to Africa as their imaginary/cultural homeland and a part of their political identity. This linkage would be acknowledged in one form or fashion from Phyllis Wheatley to W.E. B. DuBois. In fact, DuBois called for black people to political identify themselves as Afro-Americans.

Resisting the forces of racism as a political force proved difficult. The categories for black people in the census changed vary little since the first census was initiated—Colored, Mulatto, Negro, and Black. It was not until the early 1980s when Jesse Jackson renewed the idea that black Americans call themselves African Americans did the census statisticians take notice. Jackson wanted to acknowledge and positively affirm black Americans linkages to the African continent, which gave to the United States millions of its children through slavery. He also wanted to use this term to create momentum for black Americans to join up with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Lastly he wanted black voters to strengthen their political identity, an identity that could resist the neo-conservative politics of the Reagan era, which included plans to limit civil rights gains from the 1960s and that gave unwavering support to South Africa’s apartheid regime as well as other repressive regimes in the developing world throughout the 1980s.

Being African American has always been political and cultural. People who self-identify as African American have literally been from white to black in skin complexion. They have been in the main of mix ancestry from Africa, Europe, and the Americas. When they called themselves African Americans they were creating a new identity that was antiracist, cultural affirming, and truly democratic. They believed that collectively they should be included in American society and their struggle was not simply local, but a part of the human struggle to secure civic and personal freedoms on the African continent as well as around the world. It has been the American media and politicians, historically and contemporaneously, who been obsessed with race and fear mongering in its portrayal of people with dark skin. They are some of the primary culprits in promoting racialized fears among us.

Therefore I was proud when President Obama is reported to have ticked off on the census that he was African American. In doing so he was not disclaiming his white mother from Kansas or his grandparents who reared him as some might interpret. By checking off African American in the census box he was acknowledging a political identity, a political tradition and human rights struggle that is as important to our country as is its Constitution, a tradition born of slavery and Native Americans repression and genocide. A tradition that is guided by cultural affirmation, antiracism, and the necessity for democratic political mobilization in order to assure that American democracy be inclusive to all people regardless of race, creed, sexuality, disability or whatever else is suppose to make people unworthy of democratic freedoms. When I checked my census category I proudly acknowledged my political identity not the arbitrariness of my features as an African American.